Alcohol Intoxication

Alcohol intoxication is very serious. It occurs when you drink alcohol faster than your liver can break it down. Severe intoxication is a medical emergency. It's also called alcohol overdose or alcohol poisoning. It can lead to death. Here are some key facts:

  • It can take 10 minutes or more to start to feel the effects of a drink. So it's easy to drink more than you planned. Binge drinking can lead to an alcohol overdose. Binge drinking is having:

    • 5 or more drinks over a short time for men

    • 4 or more drinks over a short time for women

  • One drink may be more than 1 serving of alcohol. In some cases, a drink can be 2 to 4 servings. This depends on the type of drink.

  • It takes about 1 hour for your body to break down 1 serving of alcohol. If you have more than 1 drink, it can take a few hours or more.

  • People with alcohol abuse disorders are more likely to get alcohol poisoning. But it can happen to anyone who drinks too much alcohol. Even a first-time drinker is at risk.

  • Many things affect how drinks will affect you. These include:

    • If you've eaten

    • How fast you drink

    • Your weight

    • How much you normally drink (or not)

    • Medicines you are taking

    • If you have a chronic disease

    • If you are male or female

    • How old you are

Symptoms of alcohol intoxication

Mild intoxication

  • Feel more relaxed, less tense

  • Slightly slurred speech

  • Sleepiness

  • Poor motor skills

Moderate intoxication

  • Changing behavior, aggression, depression

  • Poor judgment

  • Confusion

  • Trouble focusing

  • Poor balance and coordination

  • Worsening slurred speech

Severe intoxication

  • Vomiting

  • Seizures

  • Fainting or passing out (unconscious)

  • Cold, clammy skin

  • Slow or irregular breathing

  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)

  • Coma

Health effects

Alcohol causes health problems. This can happen after only drinking a little. There is no set number of drinks or amount of alcohol that's too much. How much you drink at one time affects your health. And so does drinking often. Alcohol affects your whole body in these ways:

  • Brain. Alcohol can harm parts of the brain that affect your balance, memory, thinking, and feelings. It can cause memory loss, blackouts, depression, agitation, sleep cycle changes, and seizures. These changes may or may not go away.

  • Heart and vascular system. Alcohol can damage heart muscle. This can cause the heart muscle to weaken and stretch (cardiomyopathy). This can lead to:

    • Trouble breathing

    • Irregular heartbeat

    • Atrial fibrillation

    • Leg swelling

    • Heart failure

    Alcohol also makes the blood vessels stiffen. This causes high blood pressure. All of these problems raise your risk for heart attacks or strokes.

  • Liver. Alcohol causes fat to build up in the liver. This affects how the liver works. And it raises the risk for hepatitis. This condition leads to belly pain, appetite loss, yellow skin and eyes (jaundice), and bleeding problems. It also leads to harmful changes in the liver. These include liver fibrosis and cirrhosis. This can affect your ability to fight off infections. These liver changes stop it from removing toxins in your blood. This can cause a brain disease called encephalopathy.

  • Pancreas. Alcohol can cause inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis). It can lead to belly pain, fever, and diabetes.

  • Immune system. Alcohol weakens your immune system. This makes it harder to fight off infections and colds. You'll also have a higher risk of some infections.

  • Cancer risk. Alcohol raises your risk of some types of cancer. They include cancer of the:

    • Mouth

    • Esophagus

    • Pharynx

    • Larynx

    • Liver

    • Breast

  • Sexual function. Alcohol abuse can also lead to sexual problems.

There is no safe level of alcohol use for people who are pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant. Alcohol use in pregnancy may cause lifelong harm to the baby. So alcohol should be avoided. It can also cause a group of defects called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. These defects can include physical problems. And also behavior and learning problems.

Home care for alcohol intoxication

Follow these tips to care for yourself at home:

  • Don't drink any more alcohol.

  • Don't drive until all effects of the alcohol have worn off.

  • Don't use machinery that can cause injuries.

  • Get lots of rest over the next few days.

  • Drink plenty of water and other drinks that don't have alcohol.

  • Try to eat regular meals.

If you have been drinking a lot every day, you may have alcohol withdrawal. Symptoms often last 3 to 4 days. They may include:

  • Nervousness

  • Shakiness

  • Nausea

  • Sweating

  • Sleeplessness

They may also include severe, life-threatening symptoms. These are known as delirium tremens (DTs). DTs typically begin between 48 and 96 hours after the last drink and last 1 to 5 days. They include:

  • Seizures

  • Confusion

  • Seeing or hearing things that are not there (hallucinations)

Alcohol withdrawal can cause death. Call your healthcare provider before you stop drinking. This is especially important if you've had DTs during past alcohol withdrawals. They may be able to help you with medicine. They can also refer you to an inpatient detox program. Or stay with family or friends who know when to call for medical help and can support you. If you have severe symptoms, call your provider or call 911 for help (see below).

Follow-up care

These groups can help you and your loved one:

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur:

  • Trouble breathing or slow irregular breathing

  • Chest pain

  • Sudden weakness on 1 side of your body or sudden trouble speaking

  • Heavy bleeding or vomiting blood

  • Very sleepy or having trouble waking up

  • Fainting

  • Fast heart rate

  • Seizure

When to get medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Severe shakiness 

  • Fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher, or as advised by your provider

  • Confusion or hallucinations

  • Pain in your upper belly that gets worse

  • Repeated vomiting

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